Republicans react to Donald Trump’s moral equivalence on Russia, Vladimir Putin

When reminded Putin is a killer, Trump said, 'Our country's so innocent?'

Feb 28, 2020, 4:36 pm*

Tech

Chris Tognotti 

Chris Tognotti

Screengrab via Face The Nation/Twitter

On the night before the Super Bowl, Fox teased its exclusive pregame interview with President Donald Trump, with host Bill O’Reilly asking whether he respected Russian President Vladimir Putin

The full contents of Trump’s interview won’t be known until it actually airs, which is scheduled for 4pm ET on your local Fox station, but Fox released this short exchange as a way to drum up interest. It’s fair to say Fox News accomplished that. 

O’Reilly followed up, somewhat incredulously, by saying “but he’s a killer,” ostensibly referring to the slew of journalists and dissidents who’ve been murdered in Russia—and widely believed to have been slain at the hands of the state. Trump’s response seems destined to inflame social media and the mainstream media alike.

“Lot of killers, we got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

Trump’s apparent drawing of a moral equivalence between the U.S. and the current Russian government has proven to be incendiary and has already spurred some defiant reactions from elected Republican officials. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who supported Trump in the 2016 election after calling him a “con man” who couldn’t be trusted with America’s nuclear weapons arsenal during the primaries, tweeted his displeasure after the excerpt aired.

On Sunday morning, just hours before the full interview was set to air, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a longtime Trump critic, told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos “I don’t know what the president’s trying to do” with his Putin statement and gave a strong condemnation.

 Said Sasse: 

Let’s be clear: has the U.S. ever made mistakes? Of course. Is the U.S. at all like Putin’s regime? Not at all. The U.S. affirms freedom of speech. Putin is no friend of freedom of speech. Putin is an enemy of freedom of religion, the U.S. celebrates freedom of religion. Putin is an enemy of the free press, the U.S. celebrates free press. Putin is an enemy of political dissent, the U.S. celebrates political dissent, and the right for people to argue free from violence about places where ideas are in conflict. There is no moral equivalency between the United States of America, the greatest freedom-loving nation in the history of the world, and the murderous thugs that are in Putin’s defense of his cronyism. There is no equivalence there.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was also made to weigh in by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday morning, and although he distanced himself from Trump’s statement, he didn’t do so in nearly as decisive or blunt a fashion as Sasse did.

 Said McConnell: 

Look, I’m not going to critique the president’s every utterance, but I do think America is exceptional, America is different. We don’t operate any in way the way the Russians do, I think there’s a clear distinction here that all Americans understand, and no, I would not characterize it that way.

No less than Vice President Mike Pence was also called to account for Trump’s words, responding to them on CBS’s Face The Nation on Sunday morning. Under repeated questioning from host John Dickerson, Pence repeatedly ducked and dissembled, clearly uncomfortable with the line of questioning but seemingly unwilling to risk the wrath of his boss in the Oval Office. 

When Dickerson asked if America was morally superior to Russia, the vice president’s reply was more than a little uncomfortable, a long and meandering reply over Dickerson’s repeated, desperate attempts to interject. “I simply don’t accept that there was any moral equivalency in the president’s comments,” Pence said.

There was no moral equivalency. What you heard there was a determination to attempt to deal with the world as it is. To start afresh with Putin, and to start afresh with Russia. Look, we face very serious dangers in the world, and the United States in many ways has created a vacuum in the world as we’ve backed away from the world stage. What the American people see is President Trump leaning into these relationships, bringing a healthy skepticism to all of it, particularly when it comes to Russia, but saying look, if we could have a better relationship with Russia and with Putin, and not getting lost in the usual debates, but to say we’re going to take an honest effort to advance America’s interests and the peace and security of the world.

Obviously, anyone can watch the clip of Trump for themselves and judge whether asking “you think our country’s so innocent?” is drawing a moral equivalence. To say that Pence’s answer really addressed the question, however, is the toughest of tough sells. And, as Dickerson noted in response, this isn’t some new tact on Trump’s part. Back when he was a candidate, he answered a question about Putin’s widely alleged murdering of journalists by saying “I think our country does lots of killing also.”

If you’re curious what else Trump will say, you can catch the interview airing mere hours before the Super Bowl kicks off. To reiterate, it’ll be on Fox, not Fox News, airing at 4pm ET.

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*First Published: Feb 5, 2017, 2:07 pm